Golden Maples Farm’s primary market is wholesale.  A wide variety of containers are available and marketed as certified organic

There’s something magical about Spring.  Winter’s harsh grip loosens.  The warm sun shines.  The birds sing.  Mud threatens to eat your boot.  Oh yes, and then there’s the best part: making maple syrup.

Maple is distinctly Canadian and a part of our national identity.  As a symbol of strength and endurance, it is fittingly Canadian and no wonder that the maple leaf adorns our flag.  But for me, it is even more than that.  Maple syrup runs through my veins.  And it is engrained in my family’s history.

My family has been making maple syrup on our farm near Snow Road Station for over 65 years.  The farm is located on the western edge of Lanark County, the maple syrup capital of Ontario. In 1955, my grandparents Earl and Verna Wheeler sold their farm in the Renfrew area, packed up their children and bought our farm from Willard and Gladys Gemmill.  At the time, my dad Doug was nine months old and maple syrup was made from 1,500 taps. 

In those early days, making maple syrup resembled the romantic images that are now part of our collective imagination: trees were tapped with a brace and bit; sap was collected using buckets and a horse-drawn sleigh; and maple syrup was boiled down on a wood-fired evaporator in a rustic sugar camp.  The old ways.  These are images that were quite common place at that time, when maple syrup was the first crop of the season for many farmers.  And this is true for our farm as well, since we also have a forestry operation and a small cow-and-calf beef herd. 

However, much like other farms, generalization gives way to specialization and now maple occupies the largest amount of my family’s time and energy.  It’s difficult to fully encapsulate the changes that took place between our modest beginnings to where we are today.  As I am sure most farmers will agree, it doesn’t happen overnight.  My dad, along with my mom Wenda, took over the farm and continued the family tradition in the late 1970s.  With advancements in technology and a willing child workforce – my siblings Jen, Ash, Matt and me – our operation has grown over the years.  Battery-powered drills have replaced the old brace and bit; pipeline has replaced the sap buckets; underground pipelines and pump stations have replaced the horse and sleigh; reverse osmosis has made it possible to make maple syrup… and still manage to get some sleep at night.  We now bottle and sell maple syrup throughout the year, rather than sell our entire crop immediately after the end of the season.

Pictured (left to right) – Doug, Matt and Mike Wheeler taking part in the ceremonial first boil of the season

Today, we have a sophisticated, large-scale operation and tap close to 40,000 taps.  Our farm is primarily operated by my parents, my brother Matt and me, with my sister Jen and sister-in-law Samantha offering support when possible.  It’s a lean crew, but we try to work as efficiently as possible.  And this desire for efficiency extends to our mission to be sustainable as well.  Maple syrup production is an energy-intensive industry.  To mitigate this, we’ve implemented various strategies.  Most of our sap comes directly to the sugar camp through a network of pump stations and underground lines, reducing the need to truck sap.  All of our pump stations have electrical service (our last station operating on diesel generator was changed over to electric for the 2022 season) and video monitoring, reducing the need to travel and physically check stations as often.  Maple sap is processed with a 15-membrane Lapierre reverse osmosis, bringing the sap’s sugar content up from 2-2.5% (raw sap) to 20-25% (concentrated sap).  The reverse osmosis can process 5,000 gallons of sap per hour and greatly reduces boiling time.  Our maple syrup is made on a Lapierre 6’ x 16’ high-efficiency wood-fired evaporator.  The wood is comprised of deadfall and other unmarketable trees that are harvested from our farm.

Much of these environmentally minded considerations were already in place when we decided to be certified organic.  We have been certified by Ecocert since 2015.  While none of the aforementioned strategies are required for organic certification, we felt the next natural step for our farm was to obtain certification.

To be certified organic, maple syrup producers must comply with the regulations outlined by the Organic Federation of Canada (OFC).  For anyone interested in obtaining organic certification for their operation, or for anyone who is interested in learning about the specific regulations, I encourage readers to visit the OFC’s website. 

For the general reader, I’ll give a very basic overview.  The regulations apply to both the health of the sugar bush and best practices of maple syrup production.  In terms of the sugar bush, regulations outline the importance of biodiversity (species other than maple should comprise at least 15% of the volume of wood in the sugar bush), as well as the health of the maple trees (tapping depth is restricted and the number of taps permitted per tree is calculated based on the size and health of the tree). 

In terms of maple syrup production, restrictions are placed on the use of cleaning and sanitization substances (for example, we only wash equipment with potable water or filtrate during the season and are restricted from using chemical cleaners) and sap and maple syrup should only come in contact with stainless steel or food grade materials.

Regardless of whether a maple producer is seeking organic certification or not, I would encourage other producers to implement and follow these regulations.  They make sense, particularly in terms of the health of the sugar bush.  Maple sugar bushes in Eastern Ontario have faced multiple threats – from the significant ice storm in 1998 that resulted in crown damage, particularly in old growth maples, to the recent infestations of forest tent caterpillars and gypsy moth caterpillars – so anything that can be done to improve their health and resiliency should be welcomed.     

For our business, it makes sense to be certified organic.  On a consumer level, being certified by a third party gives our customers an assurance that we are following best practices.  Besides being inspected by Ecocert annually, we are also federally licenced by the CFIA.  The majority of our maple syrup market is wholesale – sales to grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries and other retailers in Eastern Ontario.  Our wholesale price did not increase as a result of being certified organic, but it is perhaps a competitive advantage in stores when a customer is deciding between our maple syrup and other non-organic options. 

Our secondary market is bulk sales.  Being certified organic has definitely opened doors to opportunities in bulk sales for us.  There is a strong demand for certified organic maple syrup in markets such as Europe and Asia and packing companies pay a premium price for organic bulk maple syrup. 

We have found a business model that works for us.  Being certified organic works for us, but it may not work for others.  If you are considering certification, study the regulations, get a quote from a certification body, crunch the numbers and figure out if it works for you.  For our farm, complying with the regulations was fairly straightforward because our existing practices strongly aligned with them.  For us, that left the certification fee.  If you are serious about being certified, you should consider this fee as a cost of doing business.  With the ever-increasing costs associated with running a business, I know this may not be viable for some producers.

Being certified organic should be considered a long-term investment.  For us, the biggest consideration is the investment we have made in branded labels and containers.  To keep our operating costs low, we buy all of our labels and containers in bulk.  If we ever decided to cease our organic certification, we would have to plan a multiple year exit strategy, in order to use all of the labels and containers currently branded as “certified organic” in our inventory.  We would still continue to follow the regulations, though.  As I mentioned before, they make sense, particularly for the health of the maple bush.

What is the future of maple syrup production?  I wish that I knew.  With changing climate patterns, the season is more unpredictable than when I was a kid.  In recent years, we’ve been making maple syrup earlier and earlier in the season.  Sometimes it feels like the industry is one step away from disaster: an invasive species that maples cannot defend against; another catastrophic ice storm; unfavourable conditions that result in a poor crop.  As my fellow farmers will agree, these fears are felt across all agricultural sectors.  All we can do is our best.  When implementing or amending practices, consider the environment.  Strive for sustainability. Support local and support each other.  

As Spring calls me and my family into action, I would like to wish my fellow farmers the very best this year.  Whether you’re spending your time in sugar camps, barns, greenhouses, apiaries, meadows or fields, I hope your crops are bountiful and the magic of your season finds you.  

Mike Wheeler

Golden Maples Farm   (613) 278-2120


Pictured (left to right) – Matt, holding his son Cedric, Mike, Wenda and Doug Wheeler          

Organic Maple Syrup from Lanark County